Farewell to Manzanar begins on December 7, 1941. In these opening chapters, the reader is introduced to the protagonist, Jeanne who, at seven, is enjoying the comfort and stability of home life with her parents and siblings. They live in California, and she is a U.S.-born American citizen. She is watching the horizon and quizzically wonders why her father, a professional fisherman, and all of the other boats are heading back towards the land.
Jeanne and her family soon discover that the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor, an American naval base in Hawaii. Anticipating trouble, Papa, to Jean’s dismay, burns the Japanese flag. Soon thereafter, Papa is interrogated and his loyalty to the United States as well as his usage of his boat is questioned. He is accused of espionage and sentenced to a year in prison.
During this year, the family is sent to a Japanese ghetto on Terminal Island where they move into a shack that is in close proximity to other shacks. They live here for two months and are given short notice that they will soon relocate again. Rather than selling her valuable china to secondhand dealers, Mama, Riku, smashes them on the floor in outrage and anger. They spend a brief time in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles before being shipped off to the memoir’s primary setting, Manzanar, which resembles more a large prison barrack than a community for people.
Here they are assigned their unit with army cots, blankets and mattress cover. Some people were able to live in units with their families while others live with strangers.
Farewell To Manzanar opens with what appears to be just a regular day in the life of the young narrator and protagonist, Jeanne. Life for young Jeanne is normal until the bombing of Pearl Harbor changes everything. Instead of being a part of a middle-class community reaped with well-taken care homes and manicured lawns, she and her family, like those of many other Japanese-Americans, find themselves being labeled as, and treated as, enemies of the United States. Jeanne’s father, a fisherman by trade, is accused of using his boat to aid the Japanese. After arguing contrarily and trying to prove his case, he and his family are still sent away.
Shortly after the text begins, Jeanne is taken aback by the chaos and confusion that follows the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. As we are introduced to her life via seven-year-old eyes, we are transported into a world through a curious, bewildered and honest point of view. As she watches her father being taken away and subsequently, imprisoned, she is oblivious to her own racial identity and cannot understand why she and the other Japanese-Americans are being forced to relocate.
Her mother tirelessly tries to maintain the family unit and preserve the family’s dignity even though it becomes clear that others are just waiting to prey on their situation. Rather than simply give the secondhand dealer the small amount that he offers for the expensive family china, she destroys it. Upon their arrival at Manzanar, Jeanne quickly observes that her life will never be the same. The Manzanar Relocation Center is located in the desert, more than two hundred miles northeast of Los Angeles.
Jeanne and her family are marshaled into accommodations that are small, cramped and poorly lighted. Instead of eating together, they eat in mesh halls and find ways to survive. The conditions at Manzanar are less than desirable. There are knotholes in the wood, cracks, and a broken oil heater. The family scrambles together and uses its skills and resources to fix what they can. They rely upon scrap to make the much-needed repairs.
In addition to focusing on the living quarters, Jeanne describes the physical effect that the food has on the detainees, including describing how the food causes stomach cramps and diarrhea. Women have to use the restroom in front of other women and are not afforded the luxury of stalls. One older woman graciously offers Mama a big carton so that she can use the bathroom in private.
Upon arriving at the makeshift camp, it doesn’t take Jeanne long to figure out that the luxuries and comfort that she has grown accustomed to will not be afforded to her or her family in the camp. They meet many other Japanese-Americans who are equally confused as to how they went from one day being Americans to the next being an enemy of the state. Jeanne’s inside view reveals how Japanese Americans are surviving in cramped living spaces. In spite of this, they still discover and encounter the kindness and compassion of others who are also detained in the camp.
As the family gets more accustomed to their surroundings, Jeanne begins to understand the extent to which things have changed. The family no longer eats together, which was a key component of her life pre-camp. They soon discover where the best cooks are and learn how to eat quickly in their unit so that they can enjoy the cooking of a chef from a different unit. Instead of eating with their families, many of the kids eat together unsupervised.
Mama begins a job as a dietician while other members of the family engage in skilled trades, such as carpentry. Although nominal, it is a way for her to earn money while Papa is away. Jeanne expresses some interest in Catholicism, but she recollects that upon her father’s return, he prevents her from being baptized.
In September of 1942, her father comes home. Jeanne shares that her father comes from a Japanese family of royalty and samurai men who, for centuries, practiced the ancient art form with poise and prestige.
Papa migrated to the United States in 1904. He attended the University of Idaho. During this time, he met and fell in love with Mama. Although he had aspirations of attending law school, he never did. Papa is a hard-working dreamer who has succeeded at everything that he has done.
Eating together is a way for the Watasuki family to maintain a strong bond. While in the camp, instead of being able to eat together, they eat in mesh halls with strangers and have to find other ways to survive and maintain a sense of dignity. These new conditions are a reflection of their new lives of which they cannot change or control.
Humiliated and dejected, Papa is finally released from prison, yet the papa who left for prison is not the one who returns. Jeanne’s father is a shadow of himself. He is easily irritated and argumentative.
Adding to this sense of loss is the fact that Papa is descended from a rich family lineage which should afford him a certain pride and status, but it is not recognized and respected in America. Once an ambitious dreamer with great aspirations for his life in America, Papa struggles with his new identity. Familiar with success, he is unaccustomed to the ways in which he and his family are being treated.
Searching, Jeanne turns towards the nuns in the camp to help her make sense of her world. Leaning towards Catholicism, she sees it as having answers to questions that she cannot answer on her own. As a symbol of this conversion process, she desires to be baptized. However, both her mother and, especially, her father are opposed to this religious conversion. They perceive this as yet another thing that will eat away at Jeanne’s Japanese identity.
Chapters 7 and 8
Jeanne recalls Papa’s interview before he is imprisoned. He is interrogated by an American official, who, amongst other things, wants to know what Papa was delivering in his boat. Papa reassures him that he is only transporting equipment that is needed for the purposes of fishing.
The interrogator pursues his line of questioning even more aggressively. He is trying to get Papa to concede that he is a spy and that his loyalty is to his native land of Japan. Papa turns the investigation around and begins to interview him and ask a series of rhetorical questions upon which the interviewer becomes annoyed by this tactic.
Now that Papa is back, the family’s cubicle is even more crowded than before. Mama and Papa argue more frequently. On one such occasion, Jeanne hides under the bed and Kiyo, her brother, attacks Papa while coming to Mama’s rescue when Kiyo assumes that Papa is going to strike momma with his cane.
Fearing his father’s retribution, Kiyo flees and stays with one of his married sisters for two weeks. He eventually returns and asks for his father’s forgiveness. Papa forgives him, but he continues to drink, abuse his wife and appear disconnected from his family.
This interview flashback reveals Papa’s tenacity and intellect. Knowing that he has done nothing wrong, he turns the tables on the interviewer and tries to make him empathetic towards his plight. He questions the logic and rationale behind the accusations and even suggests that if the interrogator where in the same situation, he would have behaved just as Ko did.
As Papa reunites with his family and settles into life at Manzanar, he and his wife begin to argue more frequently and violently. Ko takes out his frustrations and anger on the very people whom he loves. Unwilling to watch his father strike his mother, Kiyo engages in an act of bravery and physically attacks his father.
After hiding for two weeks, he returns and is able to seek his father’s forgiveness. Yet, Papa doesn’t really change. This chapter illustrates the emotional toll that his imprisonment has taken on him. Papa is unable to deal with the new reality of his life, especially being powerless. Although the family is reunified, they still struggle to create and maintain stability within the household.
Chapters 9 and 10
Papa barely speaks and it is becoming even more noticeable that he is a changed man. Jeanne recalls the riots in Manzanar that are the result of the unfair treatment of a Japanese detainee. Papa believes that such rioting and protesting is foolish and will result in their being sent back to Japan.
The authorities, Military Police, are called into the camp and lob tear gas in order to disperse a growing crowd. Several people are injured and two are killed.
Jeanne recalls her brother-in-law Kaz, who works as a foreman for maintenance. One evening, he is accosted by MPs who are armed with weapons. Assuming that Kaz and his fellow crew members are doing something suspicious, they yield their guns. Kaz tries to plead his case. He insists that they are just working and that the ax handles are simply a part of their work detail. The MPs refuse to believe them.
The riots that take place in Manzanar reveal that Japanese-Americans did not idly accept their unfair treatment. There were many who were vocal and willing to fight in order to receive their due rights as American citizens. Some even paid the ultimate price with their lives, namely the two who died.
Papa’s views reflect those who believe that such resistance can lead to additional harm and punishment. He does not believe that such methods of protest will help the greater good.
Similarly, the incident with Kaz and the other workers reveals that tensions are high in the camp. A simple act is misinterpreted as being hurtful, when it was just an innocent mistake. It also shows how much distrust there was between the detainees and those charged with watching over and protecting them.